A Defense of Virginia and the South

Portrait_of_Robert_Lewis_DabneyA while back, over at Throne and Altar, Bonald pointed out that leaving the Enlightenment framework is only the beginning of thought. Once one rejects Liberalism root, tree, and branch, and embraces the Right, the rubric for judging historical figures and events is totally different, and it’s no longer clear without further investigation who the “good guys” in a given conflict were. Progressives occasionally mock the “gotta hear both sides” attitude, but once one is on the Right it becomes necessary, even in situations where the “correct” side always seemed obvious before.

So, one comes to the War Between the States, which is a major part of Progressivism’s triumphant narrative of itself, and finds that the whole thing needs re-evaluation. That the South was in the right has, frankly, always seemed obvious to me, but there are a few different ways to arrive at this conclusion, each one varying degrees outside the Overton Window. Some examples:

  • The South was right because I’m a Southerner and always support my own people. This attitude of “my country right or wrong” is the most reactionary of all in some sense; it’s certainly the least ideological, and rests purely on natural human loyalties. It’s not very satisfying intellectually, though, and we (moderns, at least) can’t help but want to know if we’re really in the right.
  • The South was right because of States’ rights. This attempts to set aside the slavery issue and focuses on arguing that because the States were sovereign they could secede for any reason. This legalistic argument is common and, I think, basically right as far as it goes in appealing to the logos, but isn’t rhetorically effective because it doesn’t address the pathos at all and only touches on ethos in the abstract issue of law, not in the more visceral slavery issue.
  • The South was right because the Union was wrong. In other words, take the fight to the Union and argue that Abraham Lincoln and company were criminals. Thomas DiLorenzo takes this approach in The Real Lincoln, and he’s a relatively neutral source since he’s a Libertarian and neither the Union nor the Confederacy were meaningfully Libertarian governments. This argument is also correct and somewhat effective; it’s far more effective rhetorically to attack than defend, but a positive defense of the Confederacy is still lacking in this approach.

Now, all three of these typically come with a disclaimer that, though the Confederate States had the authority to secede from the Union, abolishing slavery was a good outcome of the war. However, this approach is ultimately rather weak; for most people, slavery seems so evil on a visceral level that it’s near-impossible to set aside. Besides, I’ve been on the Right long enough that I can smell a concession to modern sensibilities, and this has just that distinctive odour. These positions peek outside the Overton Window, maybe even open it up and smell the rose bushes outside, but are careful not to venture too far.

Some politically incorrect positions prompt stronger reactions than others. To reject republicanism and embrace monarchism is to leap out the Overton Window with a running start, but to most observers it just comes across as eccentric. Some positions, though, are more like turning back toward the Overton Window hurling a Molotov Cocktail right at the feet of those inside. Today, we have just such a rhetorical arsonist in Robert Lewis Dabney, with his 1867 book A Defense of Virginia and the South, and the fuel for this cocktail is not even necessarily agreeing with, but simply giving a fair hearing at all to this thesis:

There is nothing inherently wrong with slavery.

Now, Dabney presents a wide range of arguments across nine chapters, so I’m going to take the simplest approach and go through the book chapter-by-chapter. As I generally do, I’ll quote heavily and let Dabney do most of the arguing for himself, and content myself with providing some context and commentary; in other words, this won’t be a full analysis and criticism, but more of an introductory sketch of Dabney’s position.

The first chapter is the broadest in subject matter, but contains a few important observations. One is that Southerners have tended to be complacent in their defense of slavery. “Southern politicians,” he writes, “usually satisfied themselves with saying, that the whole matter was, according to the Constitution, one of State sovereignty; that Congress had no right to legislate concerning its merits; and that therefore they would not seem to admit such a right, by condescending to argue the matter on its merits.” This is still true of the Confederacy’s defenders today, and is more-or-less the States’ rights argument mentioned above. One also sees this attitude occasionally promoted in defending the Second Amendment – I’ve seen a handful of supporters of gun ownership rights recommend against getting bogged down in debate, but to assert that gun ownership is a Constitutional right and leave it at that. They are right legally, but this doesn’t at all satisfy men’s sense of ethos and pathos. Besides, as the Confederacy’s experience demonstrates, what is lawful is 100% irrelevant when dealing with the Abolitionists or their modern descendents.

He also brings forth the first of several charges of Abolitionist hypocrisy, pointing out that slavery existed in many parts of the world, but that they were far more tolerant of it in other places, even though slavery as practiced in the South was far more humane than elsewhere. He says, “Indeed, not a few of these consistent reformers have tenfold as much patience with that demon of slaveholders, the King of Dahomey, as with the benignant Christian master in Virginia[…]” Those interested in Dahomey and the slave trade may be interested in Radish‘s article on the subject. In any case, though Dabney’s point here is true, it amounts to a tu quoque, and Northern hypocrisy is ultimately just a side issue..

Related to the above, even granting that masters sometimes abused their authority over their slaves, one cannot judge an institution by its abuses. As he will also explain in a later chapter, many rightful institutions, such as the family and government, are also prone to abuses, yet that does not invalidate them. His explanation is broadly applicable:

For, unfortunately, the human race is a fallen race— depraved, selfish, unrighteous and oppressive, under all institutions. Out of the best social order, committed to such hands, there still proceeds a hideous amount of wrongs and woe; and that, not because the order is unrighteous, but because it is administered by depraved man. For this reason, and for another equally conclusive, we assert that the lawfulness, and even the wisdom or policy of social institutions affecting a great population, cannot be decided by these odious contrasts of their special wrong results.

Interestingly, Dabney explicitly separates his position from the racial element that Americans attach to it now. “It is not our purpose to rest our defence on an assumption of a diversity of race, which is contradicted both by natural history and by the Scripture, declaring that ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.'” Now, racial differences do come into play in a later chapter regarding some of the laws surrounding the institution, but by no means is race a fundamental element of the institution itself or the arguments surrounding it.

Finally, he explains that he will rely on Scriptural arguments, because Scripture is the surest guide to ethical knowledge, and the Abolitionists themselves tended to rely on it. The weakness with this approach, though, is made apparent by a minister mentioned in the fifth chapter, “The ruinous issue has been seen in the case of a minister of the Gospel, who, after floundering through a volume of confused and impotent sophisms, roundly declares that if compelled to admit that the Bible treated slavery as not a sin in itself, he would repudiate the Bible rather than his opinions.” Today, many Americans, and most Western Europeans, aren’t even nominally Christians, and those who are would, I think, be extremely likely to abandon Christianity before accepting slavery as anything but morally evil.

The second and third chapters concern the African slave trade and the legal status of slavery. Much of this chapter throws further accusations of hypocrisy at Northern Puritans, noting that the overwhelming majority of slave-ships were British or from New England. In fact, Dabney even points out that “Virginia has the honour of being the first Commonwealth on earth to declare against the African slave trade, and to make it a penal offence.”

Interestingly, New England didn’t just deal in African slaves. “The pious ‘Puritan Fathers,'” Dabney writes, “found it convenient to assume that they were God’s chosen Israel, and the pagans about them were Amalek and Amorites.” Thus, they continued to fight and dispossess the Indians, even though “By three acts, 1655 to 1657, the colonists were strictly forbidden to trespass upon the lands of the Indians, or to dispossess them of their homes even by purchase.”

Now, all this may be true, but the obvious counterpoint is that Virginians were still buying slaves. Dabney responds, “the aphorism may be quoted against them [i.e., Virginians], that the receiver is as guilty as the thief. This is rarely true in the case of individuals, and when applied to communities, it is notoriously false. All States contain a large number of irresponsible persons. The character of a free people as a whole should be estimated by that of its corporate acts, in which the common will is expressed.” Ultimately, this is a concession to reality – Virginia, one way or another, found itself with a large slave population. One can, and perhaps even should, condemn those who initially bought slaves, but the rest of the State’s citizens, and the successors of the initial buyers, had to deal with the reality of possessing slaves as best they could. In other words, by the time we get to 1860, slavery was already established, and abolishing it by force is only right if the slavery is inherently wicked, which is the main point under discussion.

The fourth chapter covers the history of emancipation. The most important point is a rebuttal of the notion that Northerners were more welcoming toward blacks. Not at all: “Massachusetts, in March, 1788, (eight years after the pretended extinction of human bondage [in that State],) passed a law ordering every black, mulatto or Indian who came into the State and remained two months to be publicly whipped; and this punishment was to be repeated ‘if he or she shall not depart toties quoties.'” It’s my understanding that similar laws existed in other free states. Some Abolitionists were more liberal, but to imagine that Northerners were liberally open-minded while Southerners were hateful and bigoted is false.

The first few chapters covered some of the background and surrounding issues regarding slavery and the slave trade, but are ultimately peripheral to Dabney’s defense of slavery. The ultimate question, after all, is whether slavery is inherently an evil institution or not. So, in the next few chapters Dabney comes to the core of his argument, to demonstrate that as a social framework slavery is morally essentially neutral.

He begins the fifth chapter, covering arguments taken from the Old Testament, with a definition of slavery. “By this relation,” he says, “we understand the obligations of the slave to labour for life, without his own consent, for the master.” Abolitionists often claimed that slavery extended to ownership over the slave’s person, even his soul, but Dabney completely rejects this understanding of the institution:

The utter absurdity of applying such a definition to African slavery in America, appears from this: that it is contrary to the whole tenour of the legislation [which] establishes and regulates the institution[…] These laws, first, legislate for the slave, as to his conduct, as a responsible human being, govern by precepts sanctioned by rewards and punishments, and require of him intelligent obedience to the same moral rules which are enforced on his master. Second, the laws assign to the master precisely that amount of control over his slave’s person which they suppose (whether correctly or not is no concern to us in this argument) to be incidental to his property in the servant’s labour; and no more. Third, they protect the person, being, and moral  responsibility of the slave against his own master. If the master kills him, it is murder, by the law. The slave’s Sabbath is secured to him by the law. If the master force him to commit a crime, the former is held by the law guilty therefor, as accessory before the fact: and the latter is also held to his personal responsibility for it. And last, the law treats the slave so fully as a rational and responsible human, that it even bestows on him the right of litigation against his own master, in one case. Any African setting up a plea of unlawful detention in bondage, against his master, is allowed to sue in forma pauperis, in the courts of law. How could the fact be more clearly defined, that the institution of slavery treats the slave as a rational human being, and gives the master property in nothing but his labour?

We’ll return to some of the laws surrounding slavery in a later chapter, but there’s one more important observation that Dabney makes before getting to the Scriptural arguments themselves. He writes, “The student of history perceives that, whatever may be the moral character of domestic slavery, it is one of the most hoary institutions of the human race. It has prevailed in every age and continent, and under patriarchal, monarchical, despotic, aristocratic, republican and democratic governments[…]” Of course, strictly speaking the age of a practice, whether it’s old or new, does not necessarily mean that it’s good or bad. Understanding that there’s no reason to believe ourselves more moral or clever than our ancestors, though, as a general rule if an institution is widespread and long-lasting we may safely assume that there’s something positive about it. In Church history in particular, Dabney will point out in the next chapter that “Neither primitive, nor reformed, nor Romanist, nor modern divines taught the doctrine of the intrinsic sinfulness of slave holding.” That Abolitionism arose concurrently with the fundamentally anti-Christian philosophy of Liberalism, and just when slavery was declining in economic value, again doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong, but it is a red flag that we shouldn’t simply accept it as face value.

Dabney then turns to providing examples from Scripture, and let me emphasise for this and the next chapter that he is very thorough; there’s no way I could list anywhere near all of the citations he provides, so I’ll just touch on a few.

For example, he cites Genesis 24:35 and 26:12-14, where Abraham and Isaac receive a multitude of slaves, which the sacred author presents as a sign of divine favour. Dabney explains, “Now to represent God as blessing a favoured saint by bestowing providentially gifts which it is a sin to have, implicates God in the sin.” In other words, if we believe that God is essentially good, and thus unable to do evil, as Christians do, then it’s simply not possible that God would approvingly give His servants something that it is inherently evil to have. In another passage concerning Abraham, the legitimacy of the master-slave relationship is solidified even more:

When Abraham was directed in Genesis xvii., 10, etc., to circumcise himself as a sign of the covenant between God and him, he was also directed to circumcise all his male children. The parental relationship was made the ground of their inclusion in the same covenant. And God directed his slaves also, “born in his house, or bought with his money of any foreigner,” to be circumcised along with him. The parental tie brought his children under the religious rite of circumcision; the bond of master and servant brought his servants under it. Here then, we have the relationship of domestic slavery sanctioned, along with the parental and filial, by God’s own injunction, by a participation in the holiest sacrament of the ancient church. Would a holy God thus baptize an unholy relation? Would he make it the ground of admission to a religious ordinance?

We should note that these and Dabney’s many other examples do not demonstrate that slavery as an institution is one that we ought to have, or that it’s fundamentally good, but simply that it is “innocent,” that is, not inherently evil. As he says after discussing the Mosaic Law, “if we find any particular thing either sanctioned or enjoined, in the peculiar ceremonial or civil institutions of Moses, it does not prove that thing to be morally binding on us, in this century, or necessarily politic and proper for us; but it does prove it to be, in its essential moral character, innocent. That thing cannot be sin in itself.”

One final point before moving on, sometimes one sees an argument that Abolitionism is a development or expansion on doctrines taught in the Old Testament, much as polygamy and divorce were tolerated, but condemned in the New Testament. This, however, is a faulty comparison, as Dabney argues, “Polygamy and capricious divorce never were authorized by Old Testament law, in the sense in which domestic slavery was; and, second, the latter was never prohibited in the New Testament, as polygamy and such divorces expressly are.”

That segues into the sixth chapter, which focuses on arguments from the New Testament. The primary point is that slavery is often mentioned but never condemned. As Dabney points out, “Several times the apostles give formal enumerations of the prevalent sins of their times; as in Romans i. 29, 31; Galatians v. 19 to 21; Matthew xv. 19; Colossians iii. 8, 9; 2 Timothy iii. 2 to 4. These catalogues of sins are often full and minute; but the owning of slaves never appears among them.” If slavery is inherently so evil, and especially since it was so common in the Roman world, it would be a major dereliction of duty for Christ and His Apostles not to issue a clear condemnation of the institution, and it’s not as though these men would’ve been to cowardly too speak against it. Christ was crucified, and all His Apostles but St. John were martyred for their teaching.

Some claim to derive Abolitionism from the general principles that Scripture teaches, and though Dabney grants that Scripture does teach general principles, it also gives specific precepts. He writes, “This being so— the lists of particular sins being so full and specific as they are— we assert it would have been an unaccountable anomaly to pass over a thing so important, open, prevalent, had it been intrinsically wrong.”

Dabney also addresses Gal. 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female; for we are all one in Jesus Christ”), which moderns so consistently misunderstand, adding to it a couple other of St. Paul’s Epistles:

So [also], substantially, says Colos. iii. 11. But the most decisive passage is 1 Cor. vii. 20, 21: “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant? care not for it; but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.” (Paul had just defined his meaning in the phrase “calling in which he was called,” as being circumcised or uncircumcised, bond or free.) The drift of all these passages is to teach that a man’s reception by Christ and by the Church does not depend in any manner on his class or condition in secular life; because Christianity places all classes on the same footing as to the things of the soul, and offers to all the same salvation. When, therefore, men come to the throne of grace, the baptismal water, the communion table, distinctions of class are left behind them for the time. Hence, these distinctions are not essential, as to the soul’s salvation. The last passage quoted brings out the latter truth more distinctly. Is any Christian, at his conversion, a Jew? That circumstance is unimportant to his religious life. Was he a Gentile? That also is unimportant. Was he a slave when converted to Christ? Let not this concern him, for it cannot essentially affect his religious welfare: the road to heaven is as open to him as to the freeman.

In other words, we are all equal in matters pertaining to salvation; i.e., we are all subject to the moral law, and will each be judged fairly at our death by Christ the King. This does not negate the real, and significant, earthly differences pertaining to this life.

Again, Dabney addresses many other passages and arguments, but the last one I’ll discuss concerns the Golden Rule. Some Abolitionists offer the rather silly interpretation that slavery violates the Golden Rule because a slave owner would not himself want to be a slave, and therefore is not treating those under his authority as he would want to be treated. This is, first of all, begging the question, because it presumes slavery to be evil, but whether that is the case is exactly the issue in question. Dabney further illustrates the absurdity of this line of argument by saying, “The whole reasoning of the Abolitionists proceeds on the absurd idea, that any caprice or vain desire we might entertain towards our fellowman, if we were in his place, and he in ours, must be the rule of our conduct towards him, whether the desire would be in itself right or not. This absurdity has been illustrated by a thousand instances. On this rule, a parent who, were he a child again, would be wayward and self-indulgent, commits a clear sin in restraining or punishing the waywardness of his child, for this is doing the opposite of what he would wish were he again the child. Judge and sheriff commit a criminal murder in condemning and executing the most atrocious felon,” etc.

With that, we come to the seventh chapter, “The Ethical Arguments.” Dabney begins by reminding us of the definition of slavery, “It is not an ownership of the servant’s moral personality, soul, religious destinies, or conscience; but a property in his involuntary labour.” Laws concerning the institution reflect this, as do the South’s cultural norms surrounding it. For example, above he mentioned that slaves have the protection of the law against their masters, and as one example he offers the case of one Simeon Souther, “The General Court, in 1851, decided the appeal of Simeon Souther, convicted in the County of Hanover of murder in the second degree, because his slave Sam had, according to evidence, died under an excessive and barbarous whipping, with other punishments, the whole evidently not intended to kill.”

Early in the chapter Dabney argues that slavery has improved the African race. This seems absurd to moderns, but they must keep in mind what Africa was like before colonisation (again, I’d recommend Radish‘s article on slavery). He points out that just a few generations before his writing, Africans “were the most debased pagan savages.” It takes generations to fully civilise a people, but Southern society had in fact been doing just that.

One trope that one still sees brought against slavery today is the idea slaves were forbidden to learn to read. However, this is completely false. Dabney explains:

We may here refer to the charge, which Virginian slavery condemned the Africans to mental and religious darkness, by forbidding them all access to letters; because the laws of the commonwealth forbade the teaching of them to read. Will not even the intelligent reader, after the currency of this charge, be surprised to learn that there has never been such a law upon the statute books of Virginia. To assert that there has been such a law, is an unmitigated falsehood. The only enactment which touches the subject is the following sentence, in the statute defining what were “unlawful assemblages” of negroes. “And every assemblage of negroes for the purpose of instruction in reading and writing, or in the night time for any purpose, shall be an unlawful assembly.” (Stat. 1830-31, p. 107.) The previous section, commencing the definition of these unlawful assemblies, expressly states that they are unlawful if held without the master’s consent. Our courts and lawyers uniformly held that, without this feature, no assemblage of negroes, to do anything not criminal per se, can be unlawful; because the whole spirit of Virginian laws recognized the master’s authority.

Another common charge is that slaves were forbidden to marry, but Dabney argues that this is absurd for several reasons. First, the Africans did not have marriage in their native lands, and thus had no marital rights to be deprived of. “[I]n their native country,” he writes, “there was no marriage, and no marriage law, but the negroes either lived in vagrant concubinage, or held their plurality of wives as slaves, to be either sold or slain at will[.]” Virginian law, though, was simply silent on the matter of marriage among slaves, and left it wholly in the hands of the master. Dabney writes of the Abolitionists, “Their minds, perverted with vain dreams of the powers and perfectibility of the State, cannot be made to apprehend that God has made other parties than the commonwealth and the civil magistrate, depositories of ruling power; and that this arrangement is right and benevolent.” This may remind modern readers of the common Conservative belief that a healthy society contains strong institutions outside of the State, primarily the family, but also churches, civic organisations, and so on. Slavery, then, was often not seen as a matter for the State to involve itself in, but slaves were seen more as members of a man’s household.

One more common accusation still common is that slavery easily became a “system of lust,” where masters would force themselves on their female slaves. We shouldn’t be naïve and deny that this ever happened, but Dabney counters with damning, but comical, figures from the 1850 census:

The census of 1850 distinguished the full blacks from the mulattoes, both among the slave and free. Of the slaves, one in twelve was mulatto, taking the whole United States together. Of the slaves in Virginia the ratio of mulattoes to blacks was about the same. In South Carolina there was only one mulatto to thirtyone black slaves! […] But taking the United States as a whole, the free mulattoes were more than half as numerous as the free blacks! In several of the slave States they are more numerous; and in Ohio, the stronghold of Black Republicanism, there were fourteen thousand mulattoes to eleven thousand blacks. Since the regular marriage of free blacks to the whites was as unknown at the North as at the South, these figures tell a tale as to the comparative prevalence of this infamous and unnatural form of uncleanness among the Yankees, which should forever seal their lips from reproaches of us.

Occasionally, one sees an argument concerning slavery approaching the issue from the other side, claiming that slavery also degraded the slave owner. Dabney finds no evidence that this is the case, and writes, “the fact that there is authority on one side and obedience on the other, cannot tend, of itself, to degrade ruler and ruled: for if this were so, the parental relation itself (ordained by God as His school of morals for young human beings) would be a school of vice.” This applies to a number of other institutions, as well, from the Church to temporal government in general. On the general soundness of the South, he proposes one basis of comparison between Northern and Southern culture, “[Southern society] has never generated any of those loathsome isms, which Northern soil breeds, as rankly as the slime of Egypt its spawn of frogs.”

Finally, one of the aspects of slavery that moderns find most offensive is that the law gave different penalties for the same type of crime, depending on the race of the offender. One good starting point for understanding the reasoning for inequality under the law in general is AntiDem’s post “The Lion and the Ox.” The basic point here, though, comes down to differences between the races. Though Dabney, as mentioned in the first chapter, doesn’t believe in human biodiversity as it’s now understood, he and other Southerners were willing to believe what their own eyes plainly told them. He writes:

[T]he penal code of Virginia was properly made different in the case of the whites and the blacks, because of the lower moral tone of the latter. Many things, which are severe penalties to the white man, would be no punishment to the negro. And the penal code for the latter was greatly milder, both in its provisions, and in the temper of its administration, than that which obtained in England over her white citizens, far into this century. The slave was not permitted to testify against a white man, and this was a restriction made proper by his low grade of truthfulness, his difference of race, and the fact that he was to so great a degree subject to the will of another.  But the seeming severity of this restriction was almost wholly removed, among us, by the fact that he always had, in his master, an interested and zealous patron and guardian, in all collisions with other white men. From oppression by his own master he found his sufficient protection, usually, in affection and self-interest.

So, we now come to the final chapter, aside from the conclusion, which concerns economic arguments. Though interesting, it’s somewhat tangential to the main arguments because we’re primarily concerned with moral issues. In short, though, slavery is not as unproductive as the proponents of “free labour” claim. A sampling from this chapter:

Another reason of the anti-slavery man is, that the free labourer, stimulated by personal interest in his own success, must be more thrifty, industrious, and economical than the slave, who is stimulated only by fear. We reply: both the premises are absolutely false. Slaves were not stimulated only by fear. They felt at least as much affection as the Red Republican or Chartist hireling. They comprehended their own interest in their master’s prosperity as fully as hired labourers do. But, in the second place, the labour of free States is not usually performed by men who have a personal interest in their own success: it is performed, in the main, by a landless class, who are as very hirelings as our slaves were slaves; who need just as much the eye of an overseer[…]

Now that we’ve come to the end of the book, I hope you’ve seen enough to give Dabney a full hearing. A Defense of Virginia and the South is a difficult book, not because it’s particularly demanding in itself, since Dabney explains all of his arguments fully and clearly, but rather because its worldview is so foreign, indeed outright hostile, to assumptions that moderns regard as sacred and inarguable. For Liberals, and keep in mind that even modern “Conservatives” are merely unfashionable Liberals, even asking whether slavery was justifiable is nothing short of blasphemous.

Why read Dabney, though? After all, even if we accept his arguments as valid, or even concede that slavery wasn’t inherently evil, isn’t this a moot point?

There is something to be said for that attitude. After discussing the War Between the States, Mencius Moldbug advised, “Just remember to judge the Union, not the Confederacy, because the Confederacy is a ghost whereas the Union still wants your money.” However, he also said earlier in that same post, “to understand the Union, we may need to understand the Confederacy. Our moral judgment of the Confederacy is relevant only inasmuch as it confirms or challenges the Union’s moral judgment.” Judging the Union does require examining its triumphant narrative of itself, and indeed, examining this issue also brings into question the Whig theory of history as a whole, and in particular the issue of moral progress over time. The premier example of this alleged progress is Abolitionism. This whole theory loses one of its most important pillars, though, if Abolitionism was not a righteous quest to abolish an evil institution, but instead an instance of Puritans self-righteously crushing the insufficiently holy.

Whether we fully accept Dabney’s thesis or not, and admittedly even I don’t (the Catechism of the Catholic Church being explicit on the subject, at para. 2414), he and other authors make clear that the institution as it existed in the South was far different from the caricature portrayed in textbooks and fiction today. Perhaps it is better that it’s gone now; indeed, given the history of the rest of the world, a gradual or compensated emancipation would likely have occurred in the United States eventually. However, waging the bloodiest war in American history and eviscerating of the rule of law to fight it, suddenly appears completely disproportionate to the alleged good that the war sought to accomplish. At the very least, the whole matter warrants further investigation because, to re-state Bonald’s point above, rejecting the received framing of this or any other historical narrative is only the beginning of thought.


  1. Kenneth Almquist

    “He also brings forth the first of several charges of Abolitionist hypocrisy, pointing out that slavery existed in many parts of the world, but that they were far more tolerant of it in other places, even though slavery as practiced in the South was far more humane than elsewhere…. In any case, though Dabney’s point here is true, it amounts to a tu quoque, and Northern hypocrisy is ultimately just a side issue.”

    I don’t think Dabney’s point is true. It’s not hypocrisy to focus one’s efforts narrowly. For example, Harriet Tubman led a number of slaves to freedom from her native state of Maryland. There is no inconsistency between her stated oppostion to slavery everywhere and her actions, because she had no ability to abolish slavery world-wide. Maryland was where she could oppose slavery most effectively.

    To the extent that Dabney has identified a genuine inconsistency in Northern attitudes, it was largely an inconsistency in how Northerners felt about slavery in their own state versus how they felt about slavery elsewhere. For example, under the Ohio state constitution, any person within the borders of the state was free because the Constitution banned slavery. But slave owners wanted fugitive slaves returned. They wanted a “right of transit” to bring slaves anywhere in the Union. There were people in Ohio who stronly resisted these demands. It’s fair to say that these folks were more tolerant of slavery in Dahomey than in Ohio. That doesn’t mean they were more tolerant of slavery in Dahomey than in Virginia.

    • Richard Carroll

      Thanks for your comment. You bring up a good point, and in general it is both natural and wise to focus on issues as they affect one’s own community (or state, nation, etc.). However, slavery in Virginia was only marginally more relevant to Ohioans than in Dahomey, and that only because of the laws concerning fugitive slaves and the “right of transit” that you mention. As of 1861, the institution was equally irrelevant in both places to Ohio, since both were then under foreign governments.

      Of course, Dabney did bring up other examples, as well, such as New Englanders apparently being perfectly happy to sell slaves (though I’ll grant that, despite what Dabney says, Virginians were more-or-less equally at fault for buying them). Perhaps “hypocrisy” isn’t quite the right word in each case, but the main point is that Northerners had neither the moral authority to lecture others, nor the lawful authority to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed.

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